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While fine black and white landscape photography is quite possible with digital technology, just like with shooting film it takes significant manipulation of the original image to make a good black and white print or digital file. The technology is different—the darkroom versus Photoshop—but the results can be the same with respect to contrast, shadow detail, and subtle tones in the highlights.

Instead of starting with a black and white negative, digital photographers begin the process with a color original (unless you are shooting a camera that has been converted to black and white infrared). The conversion must take place after the fact in Photoshop or a similar program.

When Ansel Adams made the beautiful prints for which he became famous, he did extensive darkroom work both in developing the negatives and in manipulating the prints. This allowed him to hold remarkable detail in the shadows and the highlights. In addition, he used color filters specifically made for black and white photography that darkened the sky dramatically. The way they work is they lighten their own colors and darken the complementary colors. For example, a red filter lightens the reds in a black and white photo and darkens blue and green subjects, thus makes for a dramatic sky. Software or camera settings allow us to do the same thing, but in digital you don’t use filters over the lens but software that emulates their effect on the image file. You can also alter contrast and exposure easily as well.

Software Alterations
I took this shot in southern Utah (#1) and used an automated process to convert it to black and white (Image>Mode>Grayscale) and got this result (#2). You can see that contrast has been lost and the image is quite flat. After working a few minutes in Photoshop, I darkened the sky, lightened the foreground rock, and did some other adjustments, and the final version of the black and white image (#3) has been significantly improved.

All Photos © 2009, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved


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